When Should You Start Offering to Pay on Dates?

Dinner's always great—until that awkward moment when the bill comes.You're on the third date, and things with your new guy are going well. The food was delicious, and the wine revved up both conversation and chemistry between you two. But then the check arrives, interrupting your amorous gazes. Awkwardness descends.

Like a gentleman, your guy paid for the first two dates, and it seems time that you offered to pitch in. But if you're being honest with yourself, do you really want to pay your fair-and-square share of that $125 bill, plus tip? The independent feminist within you insists, "Yes!" while the one who appreciates a little chivalry-and has a big credit card bill that's due-admits, "Not really."

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Feeling a bit guilty, you reach for your purse, purposefully moving in a slow, exaggerated motion. The trick works: Your guy spots you and waves you off. "It's okay, I got this," he says, plunking down his Amex.

Whew! Saved by the beau-at least until the next date.

In today's dating landscape, there is no map guiding who covers what. Money, even more so than sex, is an awkward topic to discuss with a significant other, especially a relatively new one. That dreaded subject usually doesn't enter the conversation until the inevitable-the bill-lands on the table, and even then is masked by politeness and insincerity. Yet for some men and women, this moment can make or break their decision about whether to bring a date home or see them again.

To figure out how couples today traverse the sticky decision of who pays for what, researchers posted a survey on NBCNews.com soliciting voluntary information, which they reported at a meeting of the American Sociological Association. Around 17,000 straight, unmarried participants between the ages of 18 to 65 filled out the survey, which drilled them on both their beliefs regarding who should pay for dates and their habits when it comes time to sort out the dinner bill. Depending on their gender, participants ranked how strongly they agreed with statements such as "After the first few dates, women should help pay expenses" or "It bothers me when men expect me to help pay for dates."

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From the data, a complicated minefield of modern chivalry emerged. Most men (84 percent) reported that they usually paid for dates, yet only 58 percent of women said that their guys were usually picking up the tab (what's with the disconnect?). Only 7 percent of men say they always pay for dates and like it that way.

The majority, however, fell somewhere in the middle, happy to cover the first few dates but hoping the woman would step up and share the cost as things got more serious. "It's very clear that most men are not looking to split things 50-50," says Janet Lever, Ph.D., a sociologist at California State University, Los Angeles. "What they're looking for is not to feel taken advantage of."

Adds co-researcher David Frederick, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University: "The reason that men are expecting more financial contributions from women during dating has to do with the dramatic changes in gender roles we've seen over the past 50 years. Now that half the work force is made up of women, [dating] norms are changing."

Some ladies, however, are not quite ready to embrace that perfect equality when it comes to pitching in on dates. While nearly 60 percent of the women said they offer to help pay on dates, nearly 40 percent admitted that they secretly hope that their guy shoots down their offer. Forty-four percent went so far as to say they were bothered when a man expected them to kick in some cash, but around the same number said they didn't like it when men turned down their proposal to contribute to the bill. "Women in our study said they're resentful when a man accepts their money, but they're also resentful when the man refuses the money," Lever says. "Those poor men-what can they do with that?"

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For men, 44 percent insisted that they would drop a woman who never offered to pay. Most reported anecdotally that, when this happens, they never reveal the real reason they stopped calling, leaving those women in the dark. "After a guy disappears, have you ever met a woman who says 'Maybe I should have paid more?' " Lever says. "Never."

Some men actually drop hints that they would like their partner to pay, making comments such as "So, where are you taking me tonight?" or "I'm afraid it'll have to be pizza tonight." But the topic is a sensitive one for 76 percent of men, including those who say they would dump a woman who never pays: They admit that they feel guilty when they allow their date to pay.

These fascinating results provide a glimpse into how precariously many of us are straddling the "chivalrous past and the egalitarian present," says YouBeauty Relationship Expert David Sbarra, Ph.D., who was not involved in the study.

Some women want the best of both worlds-equality and chivalry: A woman may demand equality with her male counterparts in the office, but when it comes to paying her share on dates, equality does not work for the woman's interest, so she's happy to enjoy a bit of freeloading. "As social roles start to change, people often embrace changes that make their lives easier, but resist the changes that make their lives more difficult," Frederick says. But Lever points out that women who expect men to always foot the bill, in a way, are supporting sexism.

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There is no such thing as a free lunch, notes Lever. Men who always pay may feel like they are entitled to call the shots in the relationship. They may also think that their date owes them something. And indeed, many women feel obligated to pay their partner back with sex, while 32 percent of the women surveyed said they feel less obligated to engage in sexual activity if they pay for themselves on a date. This turns what should be a mutual, intimate experience into an economic transaction-the act of investing one thing to get another.

Some women surveyed went so far as to say that they wouldn't allow a man to touch them if he so much as asked for help with cab fare or the tip. On the flipside, some men said they would be happy to cover all expenses if they knew they were guaranteed sex at the end of the evening, although just 16 percent said they expect some sort of sexual activity in return if they foot the bill (that figure jumped to 21 percent for the younger guys). "The reality is that the world is still not evolved to be an equal place, and we're seeing it play out in this very interesting microcosm at the restaurant dinner table," Lever says.

The good news, however, is that most couples seem to find a happy balance, with three-quarters sharing expenses by the six-month mark. Since there is no longer any clear script to follow concerning dating expenses, they are left to devise their own strategies for sharing the cost. Perhaps he gets dinner, and then you get the tip and movie tickets. Or you alternate turns picking up the check. If you live together, maybe he covers restaurant meals, while you pay for groceries.

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"In many ways, early dating is about finding out if you've stumbled upon a person who is a good match with your values and sees the world as you do," Sbarra says. "The 'who pays?' question illustrates many such gender-based values, and it reminds us that understanding our own expectations is an important first step for understanding what we're looking for in a partner."

- by Rachel Nuwer